In honor of Labor Day, here are six films that all reflect pride in the power of the common laborer and their ability to organize. Celebrate the end of summer and the return to work by recognizing the sacrifices of workers across the years.
1) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Based on John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a migrant worker during the Depression, traveling from Oklahoma to California with his family. Despite overwhelming poverty, the Joads manage to keep their family together, because they are “the people.” Both John Steinbeck and director John Ford were later investigated by Senator McCarthy due to the pro-union stance of the film.
2) Salt of the Earth (1954)
This story of Mexican miners living in New Mexico who go on strike for humane working and living conditions was made by workers who were blacklisted from Hollywood due to Communist leanings. Starring few professional actors, actual miners appeared in Salt of the Earth, which was purposefully suppressed and shown in very few theaters at the time of its release, due to the controversial subject matter. (This film will be shown as part of BMFI's Film History Discussion Series: 1945-Present later this fall.)
3) On the Waterfront (1954)
On the Waterfront stars Marlon Brando at his glowering best as dockworker Terry Malloy who confronts a corrupt labor boss Johnny Friendly. Friendly controls the docks and all dockworkers, and no one is willing to tell the police about his crimes, until Terry finds the courage to speak up. This film is always "a contender."
4) Matewan (1987)
John Sayles's Matewan depicts the struggle of West Virginian coal miners in the 1920s. A union organizer comes to town, attempting to unite workers of different races while struggling against a union infiltrator who attempts to incite violence. The mythic tone of the story is underscored by the realism of its characters, and the film is praised for its strong performances.
5) Harlan County, USA (1976)
This documentary chronicles a nearly year-long miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. Told through interviews with miners and their families, Harlan County, USA is unremitting in its images of poor working conditions, while the presence of the camera crew at the strike is credited with limiting the violence enacted against the striking miners.
6) Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Fields won the Best Actress Academy Award for portraying Norma Rae, a textile worker who attempts to unionize her mill despite the riffs it causes in her personal life and the dangers of antagonizing the factory.
BMFI will be showing regularly scheduled main attractions this week, but if you're in the mood for a more topical film, you can check these out.
Zoe Portman is a Film Studies student entering her fourth year at Hampshire College. She recently completed an internship at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.